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How People Leave One Cult — and End Up in Another

EJ Dickson

Teah Brown was born into an evangelical Christian sect called the Radio Church of God. Founded in the 1930s by an advertising sales representative turned minister, the insular group promoted an ultra-fundamentalist reading of the Old Testament, eschewing divorce, premarital sex and even wearing makeup. “It was a super closed religion,” Brown, now 42, remembers. “We had pictures of the leader in our home. We worshipped him like he was a god.”

Although Brown started having questions about the group, she attended services until her 20s, when she was expelled from the organization. In 2004, she and her then-boyfriend, a filmmaker named Mark Vicente (best known for the documentary What the Bleep Do We Know?), were approached by two women who wanted Vicente to make films for their organization, NXIVM, which taught a curriculum called the Executive Success Program, or ESP. The two women (one of whom was NXIVM co-founder Nancy Salzman) raved about their leader, a mathematician, scientist, judo champion and concert-level pianist who had patented a unique method of hacking the human brain. The man’s name, the women said, was Keith Raniere.

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Brown and Vicente’s interest was piqued, and they agreed to join the women for lunch; when Salzman successfully used ESP methods to “cure” Brown of her lifelong lactose intolerance, she was even more intrigued. “I’m just like, wow, this is amazing. This woman is amazing,” she says. “And I said, ‘Nancy, I want to be one of your people.'” Blown away by the women and by ESP in general, Brown encouraged Vicente to take a NXIVM intensive; eventually, he bought an apartment in New York to be closer to group headquarters in Albany. She was involved with the group until 2005, when the two broke up, though she continued taking courses remotely for years afterward. Vicente, who eventually became a member of the NXIVM executive board, was involved with the group until 2017.

At the time she joined NXIVM, Brown had just left one large organization with an enigmatic leader at the helm. Vicente, too, had also just extricated himself from a similarly insular fringe spiritual organization: the Ramtha School of Enlightenment, a group led by a New Age figure named JZ Knight, who claimed to be channeling a 35,000-year-old warrior deity named Ramtha. But even though they were both disillusioned with spiritual organizations, NXIVM struck them as different. “The first day you’re there, they’re like, ‘We’re not a cult. Cult is a bad word. It is used loosely,'” Brown said. “‘[We’re] a success school. We’re helping you raise your ethics.'”

At this point, everyone knows the rest of the story: in March 2018, Raniere and five of his NXIVM cohorts, including Salzman, were arrested on such charges as sex trafficking, racketeering and conspiracy to commit forced labor. Raniere is currently standing trial in Brooklyn, where his former supporters (including Vicente) have testified that he, among other things, imprisoned a woman for nearly two years, convinced his followers that he controlled technology and the weather, and ran DOS, a secret all-female organization of “slaves” who were branded with his initials and told to have sex with him.

The general view in the media — and among former followers like Brown and Vicente, who declined to comment, presumably due to his involvement in the case against Raniere — is that NXIVM operated not as a self-improvement “school,” but as a cult run by Raniere, who used threats and coercion to keep his followers in line. The revelations came as a shock to Brown, now a makeup artist and YouTuber based in Oregon, who had fallen out with the community after her 2006 breakup with Vicente but had kept in touch with many members and taken classes for years afterwards. She even recorded an ASMR video about her time in NXIVM, speaking at length about her feelings of guilt over her involvement. “I truly thought that this group had answers, and isn’t that why we join any group? [Because] they have answers there that we don’t have inside ourselves,” she says in the video.

Truthfully, however, Brown’s feelings of guilt and self-blame weren’t warranted. It’s common for former cult members to join another group immediately following their departure, even if they find themselves disillusioned with organized religion or spirituality in general. This practice is known as “cult-hopping,” explains Steve KD Eichel, PhD, president of the International Cultic Studies Association, referring to it as “a phenomenon that those of us who have been studying this have been well aware of for over 30 years,” he says.

Because cultic studies is a relatively under-researched field (unsurprisingly, cults themselves are resistant to outsiders conducting research on their practices), there isn’t much data attesting to exactly how prevalent “cult-hopping” is. But anecdotally, Eichel says, the practice is common, in part because those who are kicked out of a cult or excommunicated are looking for another organization to fill the void. Most cults, including NXIVM, teach adherents that they are wholly responsible for their own actions, which creates feelings of extreme self-doubt and anguish when they’e cut off from their support system. “That leaves [them] vulnerable to another group to say, ‘Well no, you’re in the wrong group, this is the right group,'” Eichel says.

Those who leave cults on their own – which Eichel says constitutes the “vast majority” of cult members — most often do so because they’ve had a bad experience with the group, perhaps observing something that violates their own ethics, or inconsistencies between the leader’s behavior and his teachings. But contrary to what you might expect, from the perspective of a former cult member, having one bad experience with a cult does not necessarily reflect on cult-like organizations as a whole. Eichel compares it to how most people would feel after they visit a bad dentist: sure, the experience of being poked and prodded by a poorly trained practitioner might make us slightly more wary of dentistry in general, but it certainly won’t stop anyone from hopping on Yelp and trying to find another, better dentist.

Former members may be disillusioned with that specific group, “but open to the next one,” Eichel says. “Because they think, ‘Of course that group didn’t have the truth. This one does.'” (Vicente’s case, Raniere actively referred to his experience with Ramtha when trying to recruit him for NXIVM, saying during his testimony that Raniere said “he needed to deprogram me from my mystical beliefs.”)

The fact that NXIVM promoted itself not as a religious or spiritual organization, but as a rational school of thought, probably helped Raniere reach people like Brown, who had grown up religious. “It seemed different,” she said. “It seemed more like a school versus a religion.” It also helped Raniere reach uber-wealthy, extremely well-educated people like Clare and Sarah Bronfman, the billionaire Seagram’s heiresses who served as Raniere’s benefactors (both served as Brown’s “coaches” for a short period of time). In addition to being able to attract powerful people to this group, they were able to couch [their ideology] in seemingly rational thought,” said Josh Bloch, the host of the CBC podcast Uncover: Escaping NXIVM, who has been covering the group for years. “I can understand why that would sound very attractive to someone who might be turned out by a flaky or nonscientific belief system.”

But the main reason why cult-hopping is so prevalent stems from an extremely common (and incorrect) assumption about cult members: that they’re inherently naive or poorly educated or vulnerable to being duped. On the contrary, Eichel says, most people who become involved in cults come from middle-class or upper-middle-class backgrounds and have higher than average IQs. They also tend to have a history of becoming attracted to social justice movements and causes. “We’re talking about people who want to change the world, who want to do something productive,” he says. It isn’t until it’s too late, he says, that they realize the only person whose life they’re improving is their leader.

When we hear stories about cults, we tend to assume that they exist separate of us and our own communities; we tend to think that we would never be so naive as to succumb to the wiles of a charismatic leader selling us salvation or love or self-empowerment. But the truth is that anyone could be vulnerable to cult influence at a certain point in their lives, typically during a stage of transition, when they’ve just lost their job or had a child or experienced a bad breakup, says Eichel. “The primary cause of cult membership is bad luck,” he says. This was especially true for Brown, who joined NXIVM shortly after she had been kicked out of the church she had been raised in. “I was just really vulnerable at the time [and] losing my community,” she says. “I wanted to replace my community with these people.”

Brown’s time in NXIVM was relatively short, so it wasn’t characterized by as much anguish and betrayal as Vicente’s was; she says had they not broken up, and had she had enough money to continue taking courses regularly, she probably would have been much more involved. She says she learned a lot during her time in the group, and she credits what she learned in ESP with helping her recover from the childhood trauma of being molested. It’s for this reason that she continued speaking to her coaches at NXIVM for years and taking classes remotely whenever she could afford them. “I still wanted to be connected, because I felt like they were doing good. I feel like they were changing people’s lives,” she said. “I wanted to be part of that.”

That said, Brown says that in retrospect, there were certainly red flags during her time in the group: though her involvement predated the horrific acts that have emerged during Raniere’s trial, such as the branding or the recruitment of sex “slaves,” she did allegedly witness many temper tantrums from Salzman, as well as, at one point, borderline physically violent behavior from Raniere towards one of his girlfriends.

Knowing the extent of the cruelty of the people she once considered her friends and mentors, however, has led her to formally swear off any self-help group or organized religion. This time, she says, it’s for good.

“I will never join a group again. I will never be part of any organization,” she says. “I don’t care how great it sounds or who the leader is or whatever. I’ve grown out of all that stuff and I’ll never do it.”

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